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The Plague of Justinian

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses the plague which first occurred during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Discussed are how the plague originated, its consequences and how it affected the empire going forward.

Justinian I

For the most part, emperors of the Roman Empire were not known for their benevolence, graciousness or humility. They were, as most dictators and despots are, consumed with the immense power they exercised over many of the peoples of the known world. But, they also deserve the bad names they now have due to their unrestrained indulgence. Caligula was insane, likely due to lead poisoning from the pipes that brought water to his bath. Nero liked to light people on fire and use them as candles in his garden. Many of the emperors ruthlessly conquered weaker societies. However, Justinian did not deserve the appendage 'plague' which is often attached to his name.

Justinian I was actually a Byzantine emperor who tried to unite the Eastern and Western Roman empires after the Western had been overrun by the Germanic tribes and others. He became emperor in 527 AD, after the death of the Emperor Justin, and served for more than 38 years until his death in 565. During his reign, a plague began to affect the people, so historically it has been called The Plague of Justinian.

Origins of the Plague

The seat of Byzantium power resided in Constantinople, now called Istanbul and located in modern Turkey. Since the city had a large population they had to import most of their grain from lands around the empire and much of this was gathered from ports in Egypt. Rats and other rodents traveled with the grain to Constantinople and brought fleas infected with the plague bacteria.

Immediate Consequences of the Plague

The plague-infested rodents reached the Byzantine capitol in 541 and were to wreak extreme havoc on the Eastern Roman Empire until its dissipation in 544. During that time it is believed that as many as 25 million people died of the plague in the empire and at its peak about 5,000 per day were dying in Constantinople. Reports at the time put the daily death toll at 10,000 but these have been debunked since the population was not large enough to support these kinds of numbers.

Besides the dead, likely every single person in the capitol and surrounding area was infected at some point. But the people who did not die, though sick, had to care for the sick and remove the bodies of the dead. Since nearly 40% of the population died during these 4 years, a lot of bodies had to be burned or buried. Unfortunately, this was not always possible and the dead were left stacked in the streets for days until someone could remove them. Like the Black Death that would sweep Europe in the 14th century, these unsanitary conditions led to many more deaths.

Far-Reaching Consequences

Like the Black Death, this contagion did not strike one time and then leave never to be heard from again. For the next four centuries there would be subsequent attacks of the same bacillus, which would eventually account for from 50 million to 100 million total deaths across Europe and Asia. According to CDC research, the plague reached much of the known world at the time.

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